It is that time of the year when hills are shrouded in mists, and criss-crossed by plunging waterfalls. Bouquets of wildflowers and numerous brooks come to life. In Pune, the nearby forts get covered in carpets of fluorescent green. Cutting chai becomes the order of the day. Shanties and makeshift stalls make their appearance by the roadside, selling sumptuous fried snacks. From kekda bhaji to spicy hot misal and the golden brown vegetable pattice, fresh off the oven— a monsoon trail in Pune takes you through the alleys and old bazaars of Pune. If you don’t know where to begin, here are some recommendations for the food-loving wanderer.
Kekda Bhaji at Sinhagad Fort
Named after kekda or crabs because of the way they look, these onion fritters, fried to perfection are synonymous with the rains. During the monsoons, the hills and forests around the Sinhagad fort come alive— morphing from a thirsty brown to a vivid green— making for the perfect backdrop with a hot cup of chai in one hand and bhaji in the other.
You can choose to drive straight to the fort or trek all the way to the top, in which case, these crispy bites serve as the perfect reward. Served with a spicy red chutney, a plate would cost you around ₹40. The fort has a number of shanties at the entrance as well as inside that serve these delicious bhajis. Some even let you partake in an authentic Puneri meal of pithla-bhakri accompanied with fresh curd. The best way to enjoy this meal is to be sprawled on a mat under the shade of a tree or in the middle of a lawn.
Misal at Shri Krishna Bhuvan near Tulsibaug
Pune boasts of a number of misal houses but one of the best is Shri Krishna Bhuvan. Established in 1941, the place is all coy minimalism—a few wooden tables and benches, with waiters darting in and out of their open kitchen. The tables are shared and it is absolutely normal for a stranger to come and sit beside you.
The misal here is prepared by combining poha, batata bhaji (potatoes tempered with mustard, asafetida, and chilli), chiwda (a mixture of dry rice flakes), and sev which is garnished with chopped onions and lemon. This is topped with tari—a mixture of oil and spices. A plate of misal comes with a bowl of ‘sample’ (curry, infused with ginger-garlic paste, freshly grated coconut, chillies, tomatoes, and potatoes) and bread slices. The flavours of the coconut, ginger, and garlic beautifully unfurl on the tongue. Buttermilk serves as the perfect accompaniment; as the misal can sometimes get too hot to handle. So just when the sky is overcast and you are feeling dull and grey, It is then that the misal spices things up; quite literally.
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Santosh Bakery on Apte Road
Amidst the morning calm, there is enough din in Pune’s oldest bakeries to make me believe that this iconic institution has stood the test of time— rolling out fresh bakes since 1968, after Narayan Shelke, the founder, turned his grocery shop into a bakery. Known ever since as Santosh Bakery, it specialises in puffed pastry with a spicy potato filling, known locally as pattice. It is said to be one of the first bakeries in the city to serve these sweet savoury puffs. As you pass by the bakery, the wafting aroma of the fresh bakes engulfs you and it is hard to resist these warm buttery pastries that serve as the befitting treat on a rainy day. It also dishes out mawa and coconut cakes and cream rolls. With a wood-fired oven and a blackboard that serves as a menu card, the bakery retains a vintage charm.
Matar Karanji at New Sweet Home on Kumthekar Road
Not many would know outside of Pune about this dish. It is cooked mostly in Brahmin households on special occasions. “Over the years it has become a popular snack enjoyed during family get-togethers,” says Jayesh Paranjape, founder of The Western Routes, which conducts food and heritage walks in the city. The matar karanji is a savoury pastry with a healthy filling of green peas cooked with a watan (finely ground paste of green chilies, coriander and coconut) along with ginger, salt and a hint of sugar. The watan is stuffed in maida dough and shaped into karanjis/gujiyas and deep fried.
However, it needs meticulous planning and a deft hand to render it perfectly. For instance, if the dough is too soft, the pastries will become soggy and if it is too hard then the shell will be hard to break. The right amount of oil while kneading the dough will add the much needed crunch. It is generally served with a green coconut chutney. “The best place to have it is in Maharashtrian homes but the ones at New Sweet Home is my personal favourite as it is closest to the ones my mother makes. The covering is thin and crispy which makes it more delightful,” adds Paranjape.
Kothimbir vadi at Annapurna Vadi Center on Bajirao Road
Nothing is better than biting into the warm comforting flavours of the kothimbir vadi on a rainy day. It is a traditional Maharashtrian snack prepared using cilantro (kothimbir) and gram flour, served with ketchup or green chutney. Though this forms a part of the thali, there are many places in Pune that specialise in this dish. The best and the most authentic ones are available at Annapurna Vadi centre, a no frills local vendor located on Bajirao Road. Bursting with the flavours of coriander and sesame seeds, these steamed vadis are sold by the kilo, which are later fried at home.
Garden Vada Pav at JJ Garden, Camp
A favourite monsoon snack, it offers a delectable carb overload on a gloomy day. Located opposite JJ Garden in the Pune Cantonment area, the Garden vada pav is larger than most others in the city. The pav is slathered with a green chilli-coriander chutney with a hot vada placed inside it. The vada pav is served with pickled green chillies, chopped onions, a pickled lemon wedge, and chura (residual gram flour dough fried with the vada). The food cart, named after the garden, had a humble beginning—with the vada pav costing ₹0.25 back then. A shed close to the cart was later acquired to manage the hungry customers that make a beeline for the vada pav. The pillowy soft pavs along with the crispy hot vadas, cost ₹15.